The latest project from The Mountain Goats, Getting into Knives, features some of the band’s most sophisticated soundscapes and evocative lyrical forays to date, the sequence additionally benefiting from the sensitive production approaches of Matt Ross-Spang, who engineered The Mountain Goats’ 2019 release In League with Dragons as well as John Prine’s final album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness.
The set opens with “Corsican Mastiff Stride,” epitomizing John Darnielle’s knack for hook-y melodies and quirky yet engaging vocals. “Get Famous” is Darnielle at his tongue-in-cheek best, integrating Shakespearian stand-up and wry social commentary: “Cold, grey world, all these obedient sheep / they act like they know, but they’re all sound asleep / waiting for something to wake up to / some nice juicy bone to chew.” The track’s dynamic instrumentation includes a sizzling guitar part courtesy of Chris Boerner.
“Picture of My Dress” is a lyrical and tonal gem, Darnielle’s portrait of a woman who has left her life and obligations behind, seemingly as the result of being mistreated by a lover (“I’m going to have to chase down the remnants / of something special that you stole from me”). The guitar part on “As Many Candles as Possible” is an indie reconfiguration of any number of ’70s metal riffs (Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” for example). “Tidal Wave,” in contrast, is a spacious and euphonic piece that brings to mind recent tracks by The National or Dan Bejar’s Destroyer. “The Last Place I Saw You Alive” shows Darnielle at his most empathetic: “I walk the narrow path these days / I can’t see going back to my old ways / call to mind sometimes that bloody, stinking mess / us worms turn into butterflies, I guess.” Matt Douglas’ saxophone part is notably resonant.
Sultry drums by Jon Wurster and a languid bass line by Peter Hughes contrast well with the busily strummed guitar on the opening of “The Great Gold Sheep,” Darnielle’s voice soon bobbing in a roil of acoustic and electric instrumentation. “Rat Queen” employs the staccato vocal intonations and garage-nerd-cum-punk-artiste persona adopted by Darnielle frequently throughout his oeuvre. Lyrically Darnielle embraces B-movie content, albeit with Eliotesque sophistication: “Great warm throbbing hum of the undercity / at one with the purpose / I am a faceless, nameless acolyte / here tonight at your service.”
The album closes with the title song, Darnielle grasping the paradoxes inherent to the proverbial spiritual journey, how the deconstruction of the self brings new awareness while concomitantly triggering egoic resistance. On one hand, he seeks “wisdom from the ages”; on the other hand, he’s “getting into knives.” In this way, Darnielle depicts the dissonance encountered when mystical intentions conflict with instinctive impulses.
Over the course of 19 albums, The Mountain Goats have systematically honed and built upon various signature templates. Milestones include 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed and 2012’s Transcendental Youth. Getting into Knives, too, is a pivotal project, the band markedly expanding its instrumental repertoire and chemistry, Darnielle further perfecting his songwriting finesse, navigating precise balances between mystery and clarity, impressionism and realism, satire and sincerity — another shimmering set from an elegantly supportive band and one of contemporary music’s premier songwriters.